Barry Jenkins’s remarkable If Beale Street Could Talk is not the sort of film that usually wins audience awards at film festivals. Yet it came away with a runner-up finish in that category from this month’s Toronto Film Festival, where it premiered, second only to Peter Farrelly’s road trip flick Green Book.
Close together in ranking they may be; in tone they are not. Green Book is a feel-good triumph, a journey through1960s America with the guidance of a typically graceful Mahershala Ali and an unrecognisable Viggo Mortensen. It’s stylish, sentimental – for a probable Best Picture nominee, you might say schmaltzy.
The more important, and inevitable, comparison for If Beale Street Could Talk will, of course, be Moonlight, Jenkins’s previous film and an actual Best Picture winner. Moonlight was an arresting, provocative statement: on race, class, and sexuality, when few films confidently grapple with one. Beale Street, on first viewing, does not have the scope, nor the unforgettable style, of Jenkins’s last film. But what it does dip its skilful fingers into, it does so with remarkable poise.
Adapted from the James Baldwin novel, Beale Street tells the story of Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) as they deal with the part-and-parcel of post-war Harlem life. When Fonny is accused of rape, Tish is compelled to prove his innocence and, with the help of her indefatigable mother Sharon Rivers (Regina King), she battles through her unexpected personal news.
The main problem for Fonny and Tish is that things happen to them, not because of them. This powerlessness is the central truth of Baldwin’s novel: it’s the truth on Beale Street, New Orleans, where Louis Armstrong made white people smile and black people hope; it’s the truth on Bank Street, New York, where Tish and Fonny are just trying to make do.
Baldwin’s truth is a development of the suppressed, post-anger melancholy we saw in Moonlight. But in Tish we get none of Chiron’s righteousness or brash, masculine confidence. Tish is a different creature, and her inward-facing grit feeds the film’s muted style and subdued visuals. It’s a tell that the only parts of the film that might be called cinematic are dream sequences, or the vividly told recollections of others. Tish simply doesn’t have the time.
To speak of the time, however, might be a distraction; this is certainly no period piece in the conventional sense. There’s nothing 1960 about the discrimination we see in Beale Street, or the striking humanity even of its peripheral characters and bit-players. Bryan Tyree Henry puts in another tremendous supporting performance, a further step on his journey to a stellar small-part filmography á la Michael Stuhlbarg or John C. Reilly. His time will come; when it does, you’ll know.
For now, it’s all about Barry Jenkins and, of course, James Baldwin. Jenkins has again adapted and extracted the central, human truths from the stunning work he has put on film. The 38-year-old has a way of finding stark humanity even in moments of great inhumanity, or amid overwhelming quiet. If Beale Street Could Talk will upset and anger and provoke many of those who watch it – hell, maybe it should. But the humanity’s still there.